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The Pessimistic View

The Revolutionary Masses
Nicholas II

The ‘pessimistic’ school of critics have drawn a different conclusion about Russia’s chances of peaceful development. They argue that a violent overthrow of tsarism was inevitable. The restricted parliament allowed by Nicholas II in the aftermath of the revolution of 1905 had made Russia nominally a constitutional monarchy. But it was sham constitutionalism, because both according to the Fundamental Laws and in fact the executive branch of the government and the ministers in particular were not responsible to the Duma. Nicholas and his ministers were hardly able to provide the skilful leadership Russia needed.

Besides, the Tsar increasingly tried to emasculate this potentially democratic instrument. The Duma and mass participation in the political process was systematically stifled. The tsar went through four Dumas in the twelve years between the Manifesto and his abdication. The purpose of this high turnover of Dumas was to get a legislature that would be politically tame and obedient to the will of the autocrat. All this showed that he was still unwilling to learn the lessons of the crisis of 1905. His attempts to minimize the concessions he had granted and to preserve what he could of the traditional structures of autocracy, made it more and more difficult to rebuild support for the government in a rapidly changing society.

Other aspects of the life of the country, ranging from political terrorism, both of the Left and of the Right, to Russification and interminable ‘special regulations’ to suppress unrest, emphasized further the distance which Russia had to travel before it could be considered progressive, liberal, and law-abiding. Russia’s long tradition of arbitrary rule and the authoritarian political culture it had fostered meant that notions of a ‘legally based’ state were very slow in penetrating both the official and the popular consciousness. The country remained essentially a police state with the punitive organs still enjoying extensive powers of arrest and punishment without trial of persons deemed to be socially or politically undesirable. In times of social unrest martial law, in the form of the government’s ‘special regulations’, was frequently imposed, which overrode the civil courts and allowed the use of corporal and even capital punishment in the suppression of  popular disorder.

Social and economic problems were still more threatening, according to the ‘pessimists’. They point to deep cultural and economic divisions that still existed in Russian society. Land hunger generated discontent amongst the semi-proletarianized peasantry with millions of impoverished peasants coveting the large estates of the gentry. The urban workers had to endure appalling living and working conditions and very low wages. They were becoming more radical, exceptionally militant and apparently willing to follow the Bolsheviks. Still more ominous was the fact that the upper classes themselves were  disenchanted with the existing political system which denied them any effective role in government. Even the loyalty of the government’s traditional supporters amongst the nobility was undermined by their declining wealth and influence. As long as the upper classes remained discontented, there was always a possibility that, in a moment of crisis, they might reluctantly support a working-class insurrection.

In this unstable situation, all these discontents that had led in 1905 to widespread support for the underground revolutionary parties were again fomenting unrest in the summer of 1914. Russia was headed for catastrophe, and the Russian government, accustomed to rule only by autocratic methods, did not possess the political skills and flexibility to forestall it. Thus, unlike the ‘optimists’ who believe that imperial Russia was ruined by the First World War, the ‘pessimists’ maintain that the war provided merely the last mighty push to bring the whole rotten structure tumbling down.

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